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Into the heart of darkness

  • Published at 05:16 pm July 1st, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:46 pm July 1st, 2018
Holey Artisan Cafe and Bakery
File photo the Holey Artisan Bakery, where a group of militants carried out a barbaric attack on the night of July 1, 2016, at Gulshan, Dhaka Dhaka Tribune

This article is being republished from the Dhaka Tribune's archive on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Holey Artisan attack

The Dhaka Tribune remembers and honours the victims and survivors of the Dhaka terror attack of July 1 at O Kitchen restaurant and Holey Artisan Bakery. This recreation of the events of that night are based on direct witness accounts given to our reporters

The scene

[Approximately 8:35pm] 

Two sets of Italian guests, nine people in total, arrive for dinner at O Kitchen. One woman, Simona Monti, is seven months pregnant. Three are seated outside on the wrap-around patio. On the patio, Sri Lankan national Harikesha Wijesekara and friend Ishrat Akhond have been talking over coffee since afternoon. They are later joined by Harikesha's wife Pepetha Shayama for dinner. At another patio table, Indian national Sat Prakash sits alone for a quiet dinner. The remaining six Italians are seated at Table 9 in the private dining hall where they have a prior reservation.

In the private dining hall, an intimate space adjoining the main dining hall, a group of eight Japanese guests all belonging to the same party have finished dinner and are waiting for their coffee at Table 8. Tahmid Khan, Maliha Fairooz and Tahana Tasmia are in the gazebo across the lawn enjoying ice cream. The last arrivals are Faraaz Hossain, Abinta Kabir and Indian national Tarishi Jain who are seated just inside the main doors at Table 1; and Hasnat and Sharmina Karim and their two children, Shefa and Raihan, who are seated at Table 7. O Kitchen is situated in the same converted two-storey home that houses the Holey Artisan Bakery.

The attack

[Approximately 8:40pm] 

Five men enter the O Kitchen/ Holey Artisan Bakery premises. They shut the gates, open fire and storm the restaurant wielding a machete and shouting “Allahu Akbar.” The militants are later identified as--Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Sameeh Mubashir, Shafiul Islam Ujjal and Khairul Islam Payel. The first casualty is pizza chef Saiful Chowkidar who was talking on his cell phone near the pizza oven across the garden. Eyewitnesses see him fall to the ground amid the sound of gunshots. His bullet-hit body is found on the lawn the next day. Mayhem breaks out on the patio. Ishrat, with her back to the lawn and entrance, is fatally injured in the head from behind. Most of the Italians are killed. The autopsy report finds that they were shot and slashed by their attackers. Italian national Gianni Boscheni manages to escape. From inside Japanese national Tamaoki Watanabe runs for cover. He is hit by a bullet and falls to the ground, and is then slashed by the attackers while prone on the ground. He manages to sprint towards the disused pizza oven at the edge of the lawn. The Wijesekaras and Sat Prakash follow his lead to the old oven. The Sri Lankan couple and the Japanese man manage to hide safely, but Sat Prakash is caught. Behind them, three gunmen enter the restaurant.

DT Infographics Towsif Osman

Killings

[Approximately 8:45pm] 

An attacker holding a machine gun, knocks at the private dining room's glass doors and shouts for it to be opened. The Italian and Japanese guests scramble for cover. Two more armed men enter the private dining room after traversing the length of the main dining hall, past Table 1 where Faraaz, Abinta and Tarishi were seated. They stand next to Table 7 at which Hasnat Karim and his family are sitting. The sound of gunfire fills the air. The machete flashes in the commotion. For ten to twelve minutes, the gunfire does not cease.

(From left) Ishrat Akond, Faraaz Hossain, Tarishi Jain and Abinta Kabir 

Hiding

Argentine chef Diego Rossini, Italian chef Jacopo Bioni and a nearly a dozen other Bangladeshi waitstaff bolt up the stairs to the roof and jump to safety into the neighbouring yard. Rossini hurts his back, but all survive. Nine staff run off to the back of the building into a windowless outdoor staff bathroom – they nearly suffocate during the ordeal. During the night, they manage to stay in touch with the restaurant owner by phone and with another Argentine chef, Gaston Palacios, via Facetime. One staff member manages to hide in the mezzanine bakery room halfway up the stairs. At one point a machete-wielding attacker enters the room and walks past him but he is not harmed. 

Carnage

[Approximately 8:57pm] 

Bodies lie strewn across the dining room floor and the patio outside the private dining hall. Some, including the guests at Table 1, are slumped over where they sat, shot or hacked to death by the five Bangladeshi men claiming to be doing the bidding of Islamic State. Most of the dead appear to be expatriates.

Execution 1

Three staff take cover in the coffee room – one behind the cash register and two behind the refrigerator. A Japanese guest emerges from a nearby bathroom and joins them in hiding. Rohan Imtiaz bangs at the door shouting: “Who's there? Come out.” “Are you Muslim?” he asks before kicking down the door. “We won't kill Muslims.” The Japanese man is shot point blank.

Members of the law enforcement agencies in front of Holey Artisan Bakery Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Hostages

[Approximately 9pm] 

Everybody in the main dining room has not been murdered. The three staff from the coffee room are herded into the main dining room. Hasnat Karim and his family are unhurt and are sitting at Table 7. Sat Prakash, caught on the lawn while trying to escape, is brought in and made to sit at their table. Tahmid and his friends are brought in from the gazebo and told to sit at Table 6. They are visibly shaken. Everybody is told to put their heads down. Nibras Islam briefs the other attackers in Arabic and appears to be the leader. Speaking in English, Bangla and Arabic, he lectures the waitstaff on Islam, saying it is a sin to serve alcohol.

Execution 2

An Italian guest hiding in the bathroom emerges. As she attempts to run, she is shot in the back and falls at the foot of the stairs. Shafiqul Islam Ujjal slits her throat with a machete and then hacks at her body, leaving her in a pool of blood. 

Policeman down

[Approximately 10:30pm] 

Two gunmen on the second floor balcony shoot and lob IEDs or grenades at police who had arrived at the scene around 9pm. Banani police station Officer-in-Charge Salauddin Ahmed Khan and Detective Branch (North) Assistant Police Commissioner Rabiul Islam are fatally wounded. Some 33 other policemen are injured.

Phones confiscated

A phone rings at Table 7. “It is my mother. I want to take the call,” Sharmin Karim tells the attackers. She is allowed to speak on loudspeaker and tells her mother: “I am safe. Do not worry.” Everybody's phones are then confiscated and placed in a heap on Table 7. Other phones ring but calls are not allowed to be taken. At least one hostage later learns that his family's phone calls, while not answered, were responded to via text messages written by the attackers, telling the family not to worry. Tarishi's family also reportedly receive a text message at 1:30am Indian Standard Time, but the text has an ominous tone. By this time, she is no longer alive, as far as the Dhaka Tribune is able to ascertain. 

Execution 3

A Bangladeshi staff and a Japanese guest are hauled from the chiller room. There was an earlier attempt to open the chiller door which the two men resisted, but this time the door is forced open. The Bangladeshi staff cries and begs for his life. He is not harmed. The Japanese man is shot point blank.

‘What halal food do you have?’

[Approximately 10:30pm] 

“What halal food do you have?” Rohan asks the waitstaff. Several meals are served during the hostage situation. The attackers ask the hostages to be served first, then ask staff to eat and then partake themselves. Pastries and cheesecake are served. 

Most cruel death

[Approximately 11pm] 

One of the women at Table 1, wearing a red T-shirt, begins to move and make noise. She is not dead. An attacker hacks at her a number of times to kill her. When she still does not die, another attacker hacks at her a few more times again until she is finally lifeless. Throughout the executions, all of the attackers appear calm.

Members of RAB Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Joy over policemen deaths

[Approximately 11:20pm] 

Banani OC Salauddin and DB Assistant Police Commissioner Rabiul die of their injuries at United Hospital. Rohan rejoices at the news, saying: “See how blessed we are! We are alive inside and the OC is dead outside.

Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

“The police, BGB, RAB all came to rescue you [hostages] but they have had to turn back. They have been forced to retreat. Allah has done this to ensure our mission is a success.” 

‘How many dead?’

[Approximately midnight] 

Rohan asks for the restaurant's WiFi password. “How many dead?” one attacker asks. Another replies: “Twenty plus.” During the late hours of the night, the WiFi connection was used to upload photographs of the victims of the attack. The attackers then ask to be shown all escape routes. These are sealed off and locked. The attackers make no visible attempt to escape. They spend the night repeatedly going up and down the stairs. But despite this movement, one attacker would always have a gun trained on the hostages.

Strict security measures being taken Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

'Have you heard of IS?'

Coffee is served to the attackers. One waiter is sent upstairs with coffee to where Nibras is using a mobile telephone surrounded by four grenades. Downstairs, the attackers who address each other using their IS noms de guerre discuss their mission and goals. They say their “rules” do not allow the killing of locals. They ask the hostages: “Have you heard of IS? We belong to them. We have come to kill foreigners because they are taking Islam in the wrong direction.” Rohan adds: “All Muslims are brothers. When Muslims are killed in Europe or America, does it not grieve you? “They have killed our innocents. Now we will kill them.” Nibras is the most talkative about Islam and speaks about religion throughout the night with the staff and guests seated at Table 7.

Family member of the pizza chef Saiful Chowkidar shows his photo Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

Hostages used for errands

[Approximately 2:00 - 3:45am] 

Hasnat Karim is told to lock the collapsible gate facing the clinic. Staff are asked to bring out gas cylinders which are placed in front of windows and upstairs. At 3:30am, staff are told to serve Sehri “professionally.” Sea bass fillets are cut in half to make 12 servings, and shrimp is fried for Khairul Islam Payel. The food is served to the hostages. The attackers do not eat. At dawn, they say their prayers. One staff member upstairs is forced to sit on a table next to a gas canister overnight as a human shield. Staff member Zakir Hossain Shaon is injured and bloodied as he escapes and is detained by law enforcement officials. He later dies in custody while being treated at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Staff members Lazarus Saren and Zakirul Islam are also held for questioning at DMCH. They are later released.

Strict security measures being taken Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Operation Thunderbolt

[Daybreak] 

Hasnat and two others, including at least one attacker, go up to the roof of the building. No hostage is ever seen being handed a weapon or asked to do guard duty, as far as the Dhaka Tribune is able to ascertain. Hasnat is told to go unlock the main gate when he returns from the roof. The key doesn't work. He is then told to open the collapsible gate and leave. He opens it and returns. The staff, suffocating in the bathroom outside, start banging the door in desperation. Militants hear the commotion and send one of the waiters to fetch the staff locked in the staff bathroom. As they are released, four manage to run away. The other five are brought inside. The hostages at Table 7 are given back their mobile phones and allowed to leave. As they leave, Nibras says: “We are going to die. We know we will attain paradise.” The terrorists begin to walk towards the patio. Operation Thunderbolt commences. The remaining staff and the foreigners hiding behind the old pizza oven are rescued by the armed forces.